Olympics

Thursday 24 July 2014

Famous Seamus ready for lift-off

Snowboarding sensation has world at his feet

Cliona Foley

Published 06/02/2014|02:30

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Seamus O'Connor of Ireland performs a jump during slopestyle snowboard training at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics
Seamus O'Connor of Ireland performs a jump during slopestyle snowboard training at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics

WHEN you hear that Ireland's first snowboarder in a Winter Olympics is a 16-year-old from California who turned professional at 13, your worst preconceptions may kick in.

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You're expecting a spotty-faced, baggy-trousered, beanie-wearing teenager who'll look and sound like Harry Enfield's whiney Kevin character.

Seamus O'Connor's sharp haircut, clear skin, chiselled cheeks and choirboy manners immediately confound your prejudices. Almost six feet tall, slim and athletic, the only clues to his hipster pursuit is a little jewellery – two chunky rings and a silver bangle –and the fact that he skipped Twitter and went, like all the cool kids, straight onto Instagram.

Sebastian Coe once raised eyebrows by confessing that his kids' sporting hero wasn't an athlete or a footballer, but Tony Hawk, the godfather of skateboarding. That underlined how team sports are not necessarily a 'fit' for all kids, particularly those who are adrenalin junkies, and with the advent of satellite TV and social media, the world of adventure sport has exploded.

O'Connor's dad Kevin – reared in Britain by parents from Dublin and Drogheda – has made no secret that they played the 'granny-card' and declared for Ireland because the competition for snowboarding selection in America is so fierce. But, like the rest of Ireland's five-athlete team in Sochi, he didn't suddenly unearth some long-lost Irish roots.

The family will return for another of their boating holidays on the Shannon this summer and he met up with his cousins in Clogherhead en route to Sochi.

O'Connor likes to ride to music and while his lively playlist features rap and electronic beats, it also includes The Dubliners and the Dropkick Murphys.

COUNTERINTUITIVE

A world-class Irish snowboarder may sound as counterintuitive as a Jamaican bobsledder, but one of O'Connor's two events in Sochi is the new Olympic freestyle discipline of slopestyle.

Some of the world's best slopestylers, like Britain's Jamie Nicholls and Ulster girl Aimee Fuller, honed their skills on dry slopes and skateboard parks.

O'Connor, born in San Diego, has never needed to go indoors. Bear Mountain was only two hours away, he was on skis at 18 months and on a board by four.

Three years later, when they had exhausted the local coaching pool for their young prodigy, his family (he has two step-siblings from his mum's first marriage) moved to Park City in Utah, which hosted the 2002 Winter Olympics.

His current coach is a Kiwi and they follow the snow to New Zealand each summer to train. How good is he?

Well, professional sport only has one currency. He was winning American juvenile titles by the time he was 10, when his mates nicknamed him 'Famous Seamus'. Nike, have sponsored him since he was 13.

Only one boarder in Sochi (a 15-year-old from Japan) will be younger and O'Connor is also one of only a handful doubling up in halfpipe and slopestyle. One of the others was to be Shaun White, the Messi of their game, however the American has elected to skip the slopestyle in order to focus on the halfpipe discipline.

In snowboarding, the big pro circuit is the Ticket to Ride (TTR). The Berne European Open is a big TTR event and O'Connor won its junior halfpipe two years in a row.

He started competing on the TTR when he was just 12 and will be going back to it after Sochi, but, for the last two years, has concentrated solely on the international circuit (the FIS World Cup) to secure Olympic qualification. The FIS is not as stacked as TTR but he finished eighth in his last event in Quebec. He trains every day, on the piste and in the gym, because, basically, he is a gymnast with a plank tied to his feet, who flies 20+plus feet into the air while flipping and twisting. Landing is where it can go pear-shaped and he actually feared he'd broken some ribs in Quebec.

The big barometer in his sport is the 'double cork' (a double somersault with multiple 360 twists), but top Canadian Mark McMorris has already done a treble. Shaun White is expected to pull out a treble cork on the halfpipe in Sochi, but reportedly ended up in A&E the first time he tried one. O'Connor has no trouble landing doubles in slopestyle because "it's a lot more forgiving."

"Double corks are a lot harder in half-pipe because the margin of error is a lot smaller. Halfpipe, generally, is a lot more scary. Fear is a huge part of snowboarding, if you're not scared you're either not normal or you're not outside your comfort zone which you've got to be to progress," he says with a grin.

Most fearful of all is his mum; not surprising given that she's a neurologist and the family business is actually a brain injury clinic. "She has a hard time coming to contests and when she's there I tend to screw up sometimes, so I say, 'Mom, don't come because I'll be worried too,'" he confesses, sounding, for the first time, like the teenager he is.

Foam pits and giant air-bags help to learn new tricks, but you can't avoid the slopes or the falls. Norway's big slopestyle medal hope Torstein Horgmo has already broken his collarbone in Sochi which has helped force the organisers make the course less dangerous, but most of O'Connor's catalogue of broken bones have occurred in practice.

His worst smash ever – he broke his leg in two places and fractured his jaw – occurred when he was just 10, so, while he's tipped as a future medal prospect, snowboarding has a massive casualty rate.

ABUSE

"It's a young person's sport because your body has got to be able to take the abuse we give it," he concedes.

O'Connor's girlfriend is still in high school, he studies online most days and will definitely go to college – "university is mandatory in my family" – but right now he's a child in a man's world, living the dream.

It's a remarkably demanding and peripatetic lifestyle for a kid who only turned 16 in October, but O'Connor is exceptionally composed and together ... until you ask him if he surfs as well.

"Eh, well, I have surfed, but I'm not the greatest fan of the ocean," he admits, laughing. "It's a little silly, but I have a little bit of a phobia about sharks and stuff."

At 16 he's allowed a little silliness.

Sochi schedule – Slopestyle qualifying is today; semi-finals and final on February 8. Halfpipe takes place on February 11

OTHER IRISH ACTION IN SOCHI

SKIING

(Slalom and giant slalom)

Conor Lyne (21)

Father John is from Brandon in Kerry and his mum Anna is from Hospital, Limerick. They met in UCC and their work led them to Logan, Utah. Conor put his mechanical engineering studies on hold for the past two years to qualify.

At the last World Championships he went in ranked 98th and finished 52nd and is hoping to make top 50 on his Olympic debut.

Feb 19 Giant Slalom. Feb 22 Slalom.

Florence Bell (17)

With a Northern Ireland dad (Brian, from Lurgan) and a British mum, Bell was born and reared in Birmingham where she is still going to secondary school and splitting her A-Levels over three years in order to travel abroad for training and competition. Her sister Victoria (21 months older) also skis for Ireland but Florence edged her sibling out of the one slalom place for Sochi.

Feb 18 Giant Slalom. Feb 21 Slalom.

SKELETON

Sean Greenwood-O'Foighil (26)

Mother Sibeal Foyle emigrated from Galway (Newcastle) to Canada in the early '80s and Sean was born in Vancouver. He has a degree in economics and is a commercial helicopter pilot. First tried the skeleton in 2008 and volunteered at the bob-track in Whistler at the last Winter Olympics. Only started competing in early 2012 but has done well on the North American circuit and is currently ranked 27th in the world.

Feb 14: Skeleton.

CROSS-COUNTRY SKIING

Jan Rossiter (26)

Born in Cork to a Clonmel father and Czech mother, the family moved to Kingston, Ontario when he was two. Took up cross-country while studying in Montreal. He works as a respiratory therapist but has been training full-time for the past five months in the 15km in a sport which is as testing aerobically as professional cycling.

Feb 9 15km Classic.

Irish Independent

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